Now in its fourth decade of production, the compact Toyota Corolla is the best-selling nameplate in automotive history. And with good reason: This is the quintessential economy car. It's small, inexpensive, fuel-efficient and reliable. Put gas in it, give it the occasional oil change and it will provide dependable transportation well past the 100,000-mile mark. That's why it's typical for more than 200,000 Americans, from high schoolers to retirees, buy Corollas every year.
Since its 1968 introduction in the U.S., the Toyota Corolla has come in a variety of body styles, including sedan, coupe, hatchback and wagon. Currently, it is only available as a sedan. It is also more expensive than earlier models, but it still provides most of the usual benefits of Corolla ownership, along with a substantially more refined driving experience. Unfortunately, though, the latest Corolla has been eclipsed by rivals that deliver more in terms of design, features and driving dynamics. Older, used models are still an excellent choice for an economy car, however.
Current Toyota Corolla
The current Toyota Corolla small sedan comes standard with a 1.8-liter inline-four cylinder engine that produces 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and a rather outdated four-speed automatic is optional. Acceleration is merely adequate, but at least the engine is relatively smooth as it labors to propel the car. Fuel economy is respectable, but quite a bit lower than newer competing cars.
The Corolla is available in three trim levels: L, LE and S. The base L feature highlights include 15-inch steel wheels, full power accessories, keyless entry, air-conditioning and a CD player with auxiliary audio jack. The LE adds 16-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, cruise control, Bluetooth, steering-wheel audio controls and an upgraded stereo with iPod connectivity. The S adds foglights, sporty body elements, upgraded cloth upholstery and metallic interior trim. Options for these upper trims include a sunroof, a navigation system, satellite radio and Bluetooth streaming audio.
The Toyota Corolla mostly aims to please the average consumer. Ride quality is smooth and quiet, while the car's handling is adequate but uninspired. This trend continues in the cabin, where there's nothing flashy about the design. Materials quality is only average for this class; however, the control layout is as simple and organized as they come. There's ample room in the backseat. But overall, competitors from Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Hyundai and Mazda outdo it in most regards, specifically in the areas of interior quality, value and driving pleasure/confidence.
Used Toyota Corolla Models
The current Toyota Corolla represents the 10th generation, which debuted for the 2009 model year. It's not longer or taller than the previous-generation Corolla, but it is a little wider, which creates additional hip- and shoulder room. If you're shopping for a Corolla from this time period, you might encounter the Corolla XRS and XLE trim levels sold for 2009 and '10. The sportier XRS came with a 2.4-liter engine good for 158 hp, while the luxury-themed XLE came with a nicer interior and available leather upholstery. Other notable changes include standard stability control, which debuted in 2010.
The ninth-generation Toyota Corolla was produced from 2003-'08 and came in CE, S, LE and XRS trim levels. The CE was a basic economy car but came with essentials like air-conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat and a CD player. The Corolla S offered a few more conveniences, while adding a lower body kit, rear spoiler and smoked headlamps for a faux sport sedan look. The LE did away with the sporty add-ons in favor of a more upscale feel -- it was the one to get if you wanted faux wood interior trim. Finally, there was the XRS, the only truly sporty member of the Toyota Corolla family. In addition to all the cosmetic touches from the S model, the XRS had a more powerful engine, a firmer suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and alloy wheels.
For power, the CE, S and LE had a 1.8-liter four-cylinder rated for 126 hp. This doesn't sound like a lot, but the ninth-generation Corolla got around well for a car in this class, providing solid highway acceleration. The XRS, which was only produced for 2004 and '05, had a higher-revving 1.8-liter four good for 164 hp. Acceleration was definitely quicker, but many consumers would probably find the engine's peaky power delivery annoying in everyday traffic. Additionally, the XRS was only available with a manual transmission, whereas other Corollas could be equipped with a manual or automatic.
Changes to the ninth-generation Corolla were limited but possibly significant for used-car shoppers. Notably, side curtain airbags, stability control and a JBL audio system were all newly available for the '05 model year. In reviews at the time, we noted that this Corolla offered a smooth and quiet ride but uninspiring handling. There was nothing flashy about the cabin's design, but materials quality was very high for this class of car. There was ample room in the backseat, but the driving position was awkward.
The eighth-generation Toyota Corolla was sold from 1998-2002. Besides being a good choice from a reliability and fuel-economy standpoint, this Corolla is an excellent used-car buy if safety is a priority -- it was the first low-priced compact sedan to offer side airbags as an option back in 1998. All Corollas from this era were sedans, and all had a 1.8-liter four-cylinder. Acceleration was solid, though we'd advise you to avoid base models equipped with the archaic three-speed automatic transmission (either VE or CE, depending on the model year). Ride comfort and materials quality were also strengths; a cramped backseat was the major negative.
The seventh generation covers the years 1993-'97. Similar in size and personality to its successor, this Corolla was powered by a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. Horsepower output was anywhere from 100 to 115, depending on the model year and emissions equipment. Dual front airbags were standard in all years, except 1993. A wagon version was available from 1993-'96.
Sixth-generation Corollas sold from 1988-'92 were much smaller and boxier, although the lineup was considerably more varied. In addition to the plain-Jane sedan, there was a sporty GTS coupe with a high-revving four-cylinder rated for as much as 130 hp (an impressive number at the time). An all-wheel-drive "All-Trac" wagon was also available.
One thing to keep in mind if you're shopping for a Toyota Corolla sedan from most of these generations is that GM sold an identical model called the Prizm under the Chevrolet and Geo brands. Depreciation was always higher on this car, meaning that you can buy a used one for less than you'd pay for the Toyota version.
Read the most recent 2013 Toyota Corolla review.
If you are looking for older years, visit our used Toyota Corolla page.
For more on past Toyota Corolla models, view our Toyota Corolla history page.